When I got the word, a few weeks ago, that the seminary I have been attending for the past year-and-a-half is starting some version of a closing-down process, it threw me into what feels like a full-on existential crisis. All of this work...for what? All of these classes...for whom? I've found it hard to pay any attention to my studies the for the past two weeks; I'm having trouble caring. Shortly after I entered Andover Newton, in the fall of 2014, the community received word that our shiny new President, the one who had been hired to Save The Day, had admitted, post-hire, to a long-term extramarital affair. Now we learn that the campus upon which sit the buildings in which many of us have sat and studied and pondered and grappled and made meaningful connections, is for sale. Sigh.
What does it mean when seminaries (in this case one which has been in existence for 208 years) and churches are shuttering their doors and windows? Quelle surprise, right? No one is going into the ministry these days. The falling of these institutions is, for certain, a reflection of the times, and comes with all the attendant sadness and grief and anger. But what does it mean?
The loss of this institution and others like it and the small number of people who sit in my church every Sunday doesn't reflect, I don't believe, a waning desire for meaning or a loss of faith. I believe what we are experiencing is a time of transition, on a global level, and all transition comes with a certain amount of chaos and soul-searching. The old ways aren't working; the new ones aren't in place yet...we are moving toward something, only we don't know what it is...yet. We look for the signs, we pray for guidance, we pet the dog a little longer, hoping something, anything will come into focus.
Here's what I am noticing: that I cannot avert my gaze from the faces in the photos of the refugees arriving on the shores of Greece. The faces in the boats, of cold and scared and hungry and weary human beings. And it is especially distressing to me right now, as we Americans enter into our season of indulgence. When many of us sit down to tables groaning with the weight of more food than any person should consume in a week, let alone an evening. When we buy and buy and buy, things we don't need and can't afford, because we are programmed to. Because it's what we do.
Meanwhile. There is the 20-year-old Syrian mother, changing her baby's diaper in a cornfield. There is the grandmother arriving on the beach, dehydrated and wailing. There they are: tens of thousands of humans, far from home, with more arriving on the Greek shores every day, in desperate need of warmth and food. And hope. And here we are, wondering if a 15-pound turkey will be enough this year.
Who are we, all of us Americans sitting safely and comfortably at home, debating through a keyboard, whether or not refugees should be allowed to come here? Unless you are Native American, every single one of you is descended from someone who emigrated here at some point. Perhaps by choice, but most likely not. History has shown us this much: no one wants to leave the homeland they know and love, if they don't have to. Have we lost so much of our souls that we believe that these torn and tattered humans, who left war zones and traveled across frigid seas with nothing...nothing...can or should be left to suffer further?
I could easily torture myself with all the questions I have around the falling of the institutions I love. But I don't think that's the point. I look at the haunting photos and I see one word: help. And I know that it will be the one regret I have in this lifetime, that I didn't help enough. That I saw the need, that I saw the signs, that the walls of the institutions fell and I didn't get it. I didn't get the simplicity of the message: We don't need the buildings, we need each other...go into the world and meet the needs of the suffering right where they are.
I ask that you plumb the depths of your own hearts and honestly survey your own lives this Thanksgiving week. This world, our world is awash in need. I challenge you to step outside your zone of safety, to stop talking about the struggles of our fellow humans and endlessly debating who's right and who's wrong. The refugees don't give a shit what you think about the idea of refugees; they need a warm coat. The homeless person does not care what you believe about poverty or the Great American Dream; they need a warm meal. Take your gifts, your resources, shift your priorities and go. Be grateful and then show gratitude by giving it back to the world.
I don't know many truths; the world is shifting all the time. But I do know this: if you are living a life where you have more than you need, then you have a responsibility to give. It's not an option, not a quaint idea, not an opportunity for a tax deduction, it's a responsibility.